As Creative as an Artist, as Disciplined as a Ballerina


Emmanuelle Charpentier invented molecular scissors that enabled targeted editing of the genome. It's one of the most significant developments in recent history. In recognition of her work, the professor is receiving the Aachen Engineering Award.


Emmanuelle Charpentier could have been a ballerina or musician, an architect or an artist, a psychologist or a philosopher. She is a woman of many talents. In the end she became a microbiologist, and one who can change the world with her research. She is one of the inventors of CRISPR-Cas 9 – Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats – one of the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries in recent history. Scientists around the world work with the technology to target and change genes and their expression in cells and organisms. As director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology and founder of the Max Planck Research Center for Pathology, she is substantially driving this technology forward. While doing so, she has remained many things: as creative as an artist or musician, as disiplined as a ballerina, with her work as inquisitive and critical as a philosopher or psychologist. "My work still has a long way to go. I want to discover further biological mechanisms that can be applied to bio-engineering and bio-medicine," she says.

The molecular scissors have already caused a great sensation. "I wouldn't have expected CRISPR-Cas9 to receive such resounding recognition so quickly," she says. Now she is being honored with the Aachen Engineering Award for her work – as a microbiologist. That might seem odd at first, which Charpentier understands, as her research field doesn't usually fall under engineering. However her work has a lot in common with the art of engineering. She, herself, calls it genetic engineering, with tiny tools. "We microbiologists essentially work like engineers," she explains. And Emmanuelle Charpentier's "toolbox" is finding resonance worldwide.

A Bridge to the Engineering Sciences

The Aachen Engineering Award is a prize jointly awarded by RWTH and the City of Aachen with the friendly support of The Association of German Engineers VDI as the prize donor. The prize will be awarded on Friday, September 7, 2018, during a ceremony at city hall. Charpentier will then give the keynote speech on Saturday, September 8, 2018, at the University's Graduation Celebration in Soers with 5,000 participants.

Since 2014, the award has been annually presented to an individual who has made a significant contribution to the positive perception and/or further development of engineering with his or her life’s work. The Association of German Engineers VDI sponsors the sculpture "Intersecting Ellipses" by artist Marian Castillo Deball, which each award recipient also receives.

The award was not established to simply promote the reputation of engineering achievements. The recipients are also selected on their ability to promote social or economic change and inspire younger generations. Former recipients include Berthold Leibinger, who turned Trumpf, a small Swabian machine factory, into a high-tech corporation for laser technology; Franz F. Pischinger, an RWTH professor who founded the spin-off FEV Motorentechnik GmbH in Aachen; astronaut Thomas Reiter; and the long-term director of the RWTH Aachen Laboratory for Machine Tools WZL, Professor Manfred Weck. Now it's a microbiologist's turn, whose work has significant effects on engineering in biotechnology. Her CRISPR-Cas9 discovery fundamentally changed the world of biotechnology.

"The decryption of the genome and methods to copy and modify genetic sequences is not only a crucial discovery in biology. These advances also reveal the possibility to help shape life. As a result, biotechnology has built a bridge to engineering and is turning into an innovative scientific discipline," explains the rector of RWTH Aachen, Ernst Schmachtenberg. "Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier represents the development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology and thus a great change, the effect of which cannot yet completely be realized. We are honoring her because her groundbreaking research points to the future and because she has thrown open the doors for bio-engineering," he continues.

France, USA, Austria, Sweden, Germany

CRISPR stands for "Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats" and refers to a DNA sequence in bacteria. Cas9 is a so-called endonuclease – an enzyme that cuts DNA. In a viral infection, bacteria cut pieces out of the virus' DNA and incorporate it into the CRISPR sequence. With the resulting translated CRISPR-RNA and a further RNA molecule, bacteria can recognize the genetic makeup of virus in a new attack and cut the DNA, rendering the pathogens harmless. A discovery full of possibilities.

Emmanuelle Charpentier first became acquainted with CRISPR as a private lecturer in Vienna. She then turned it into her field of research. In 2011, she understood the fundamental mechanisms of CRISPR-Cas9, publishing them in the journal "Nature." Together with the American structural biologist Jennifer Doudna she was able to further develop the mechanism a year later in high-performing technology that could be applied in all living cells – from bacteria to plants and animals to humans. The study appeared in "Science" in 2012. The versatility of the technology quickly spread and was taken up by countless colleagues. "I am really surprised at the speed at which CRISPR research has developed," says Charpentier. To put it in numbers: In 2012 there were 127 scientific publications on the topic, in 2013 it grew to 277, in 2015 almost 500, and just a year later they amounted to more than 1000. Scientists from around the world are investigating CRISPR-Cas9 and want to develop it further. "Other scientists' enthusiasm is the greatest compliment for my work," she says.

Charpentier, born on December 11, 1968, in Juvisy-sur-Orge, studied biology, microbiology, and genetics at Pierre-and-Marie-Curie University and at the renowned Institut Pasteur in Paris, where she also completed her doctorate. As a postdoc, she completed research visits in USA, first in New York, and then in Memphis, Tennessee. There, she recalled in an interview with the Max Planck Society, something her aunt once said. "My aunt, a missionary, once prophesied to me as a child that I would lead an adventurous, unsettled life. At that point, I didn't really know what she meant. However, since I arrived in New York, I've been constantly on the go."

In 2009 she returned to Europe as an associate professor at the University of Vienna. She completed her hablitation in microbiology and went to Sweden, where she made the breakthrough in her research on CRISPR-Cas9. She served as professor at the Hannover Medical School from 2013 to 2015, and was head of the Department of Regulation in Infection Biology at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Biology in Berlin. She is also the founding director of the Max Planck Research Center for Pathology, which is currently being established. Her institute has a special foundation, right in the middle of the historic grounds of Charité, where Robert Koch worked at the Prussian Institute in the late 19th century on infectious diseases. Additionally, she was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt professorship at the Hannover Medical School in 2014 and is an honorary professor at Humboldt University of Berlin.

Letters of Hope

Charpentier's hope is that genetic defects and illnesses like cancer can be treated with "her" tool. If applied research is successful, doctors could potentially fix mutations, heal genetic diseases, or even just offer treatment options. Despite the euphoria Charpentier warns that it could be a few years before CRISPR-Cas9 is applied in medicine. However, because the work is close to her heart, she also founded a company a few years ago: CRISPR Therapeutics to help make the technology market-ready as a treatment method.

She knows the fears connected to interfering with the human genome. She is aware of the apprehensions. But she receives more letters of hope from parents wishing that their child's illness and their own suffering could be treated.

Nevertheless, it is important to her to publicly discuss the topic and in an interview with dpa, the Deutsche Presseagentur, she recently said that scientists must be prepared to assume responsibility for the risks involved in gene modification. "We need an enhanced debate and international regulations on the potential risks of CRISPR-Cas9 as gene-editing technology." In a conversation with the Max Planck Society at another time she said: "CRISPR-Cas9 could do a tremendous amount of good for humanity, but of course we have to act responsibly. Most of my colleagues, and I myself, refuse to interfere with the human germline for example, which can influence the genome of future generations."

She has already received numerous awards for her ground-breaking work, including the American Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2015), the Gottfried-Wilhelm-Leibniz Prize and the Otto Hahn Medal (2016), the renowned Japan Prize (2017), and most recently the Norwegian Kavli Prize in nanosciences. The awards confirm that Charpentier's discovery is of the the greatest discoveries in science – not just in microbiology. Until now she hadn't won an award in engineering though. This award is something special: "We live in a world full of technology. We need engineers and scientists working hand in hand. It is important that they are valued. I am very honored to receive this honor as a scientist."

Text: Thorsten Karbach